08 October, 2006


Jess Franco's iconoclastic blending of jet black comedy, commentary on the BLIND DEAD series, uncredited adaptation of the tales of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer and post-modern consideration of the lingering effects of the Spanish Inqusition, LA MANSION DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTES  is one of 12 [!] features he made in 1982 for Emilio Larraga's Golden Films Internacional.
Candy (Lina Romay) and three of her friends, German waitresses who have saved all year for a vacation on Las Palmas, one of the Canary Islands, arrive off-season at a deserted International resort hotel to be greeted by the remote Carlos Savanorola (Antonio Mayans) who, like Norman Bates in PSYCHO, has more than a few things to hide. Like the fact that he keeps his sex-slave wife (Eva Leon) chained to the wall in one of the rooms and leads nightly ritual sacrifices of abducted women who are brutally raped and murdered by his secret sect (the Brotherhood of Cathar) inhabiting a nearby 18th century monastery.
I once termed this a Blind Dead film without blind dead, but it's not part of that series of 1970s films. Franco inverts the imagery, filling his film with transgressive humor as the "undead" rape, torture and murder Candy's scantily clad companions. But nothing is as it seems in this subversive burlesque of Spanish Horror. It's not even a zombie film per se(as Franco points out in the documentary interview THE MANSION JESS BUILT). It's an 100% Spanish (as Franco describes it) enterprise which wildly fluctuates between neo-Gothic imagery (the MANSION is the monster, to paraphrase Roger Corman's explanation of his 1960 THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER to AIP executive Sam Arkoff), sex comedy (the amusing Albino Graziani, dubbed by Franco himself, is the crazed hotel gardener who sings arias to his flowers and is always attempting to peep at the lesbian antics of Candy and her semi-dressed girlfriends)and interludes of graphic sexual violence. This is the only film I can think of, with the possible exception of Hitchcock's FRENZY, which plays the extended rape-murder of a screaming woman for humor [!?]. Perhaps it's Franco's take on the macho attitudes of the modern Spanish male or the sexual hypocrisy of the Spanish Inquisition (Savanorola!) and that legacy in Catholic Spain of the post General Franco era ( the director hints at both in his interview). Some will condemn it as vile sexploitation. The absurd plastic Halloween fright masks worn by the sect (who describe themselves as those who wear white habits to cover their "black souls") will certainly invites nervous laughter, and perhaps that's exactly what Franco intended.
There's more than a little cinematic skill in the visual and aural presentation of the windswept locations, where palms gently sway in the midnight breeze, the rustling never quite drowning out the victim's screams of horror. Credited as an adaptation of a novel by "David Khunne"[?!] this is a gorgeously shot film which only reveals itself after repeat viewings, if then. The citron color scheme is based on available light and is quite beautifully, ironically entrancing considering the grotesque, sadistic events within Franco's well-appointed mise en scene. The aforementioned rape-muder of Mabel Escano and the rat-poisoned final meal of the starved Eva Leon are especially difficult to watch. Everything else becomes subtext and trivial in comparison.
The new SEVERIN FILMS DVD presentation is definitive, finally giving the film its visual and audio due, which is crucial in a film where everything depends on the deceptive way things look and sound. The tolling of the mission bell, the eerie midnight windstorms, the distant chanting of the Templar like sect have never been more effective heard in Dolby Digital Mono and the 2.35:1 Techniscope transfer from crisp, clean and remarkably colorful elements is enveloping. As in any good horror film it's hard to look away from the screen even during the excruciatingly detailed rape scenes and the spectral light of the Canary Island locales is atmospherically rendered. It's also a film where empty spaces inhabit the Techniscope frame for extended periods and this unique compositional strategy (a suspense technique also familiar from Hitchcock) can finally be fully appreciated.
THE MANSION JESS BUILT is an information packed interview with Jess Franco and Lina Romay, who reveal that Jess' numerous covers like J.P. Johnson, Clifford Brown and Dave Tough were hommages to American Jazz musicians who had a specific artistic appeal to Franco (graphics of the Jazz artists are helpfully provided). Jess also comments on the zombie films of George Romero ("Primitive") and reveals that the long sought-after "novels" of "David Khunne", the credited sources for this film and the classic GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961), never existed. So much for that myth. Franco really seems to enjoy coming clean about all this.  He also admires the first BLIND DEAD film while pointing out the source for inspiration here was not Amando de Ossorio but the 19th Century poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (1836-1870), a writer of Romantic-Fantastique tales who is considered to be the Spanish Poe. Becquer's "Leyendas"--"La Cruz del Diable", "El Miserere", "El Monte de los Animas" were adapted by Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy for John Gilling's 1975 LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO, a project Naschy later denounced after he was fired as the lead actor and his script altered. Both MANSION... and LA CRUZ... feature marauding Templar-like sects and a lot of sexual mayhem, although Franco never mentions the specific Becquer story which inspired him. But all this is fascinating background information and sheds new light on the history of Spanish horror and MANSION... in particular.
This deluxe presentation of one of Franco's most outlandish creations is a must-have. David Gregory and his colleagues have done a terrific job with this and their MACUMBA SEXUAL disc. We  hope more of Franco's rarely seen Golden Films Internacional titles will get this kind of quality presentation in the future. MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD will be available from SEVERIN FILMS on Oct. 31st.
Thanks to Mirek Lipinski for his help in the background research for this review.

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